On Lent and the iPod

For the last several years I have been trying to observe the ancient Christian season of Lent, the forty-day fast of repentance and preparation for the high celebration of Easter.

The purpose of Lent is not morbid introspection and self-flagellation, but a time to renew our hunger and thirst for communion with God. And so, every year on Ash Wednesday I consider the state of my soul to decide what I need to “put off” during the lenten fast.

What I realized this year was that my inner life was too noisy. I had allowed too many distractions into my life that were keeping me from pursuing the quiet contentment of a man at peace with God. I also realized that most of these distractions came in the form of technology.

And so I decided to “iFast”–to go forty days without my iPod, iTunes, Facebook, email, and blog reading–all for the sake of my soul.

In his brilliant book on Lent, Alexander Schmemann writes that before we are ready for Easter, we have to quiet ourselves.  We must reach

“a place to which the noises and the fuss of life, of the street, of all that which usually fills our days and even nights, have no access—a place where they have no power. All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our mind, that state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light and happy…it is a deep happiness which comes not from a single and particular reason but from our soul having in the words of Dostoevsky, touched ‘another world.’”

In order to reach such a place of inner quiet and joy, I knew I needed to turn off some of the noises in my life.  And the longer I went without my “iStuff,” the more I realized how it had affected me.

Mastered by My Tools

We should always be grateful for our tools, but we must also realize the way in which our tools shape us. If you swing a hammer long enough, the hammer reshapes you, toughening the skin in your palm and thickening the muscles in your hand. After pounding enough nails, the hammer becomes an extension of your arm—you know the exact length of the hammer, the precise weight. You begin to be able to make the hammer do your will without having to consciously think about it.

The more I use a hammer, the more the hammer reshapes my body and consciousness. Likewise, the more I use my iStuff—technology that emphasizes my unique identity—the more I am shaped by it.  Often this reshaping is beneficial, but not always.

The most innocuous negative reshaping produced by iStuff is that it creates a sudden flood of information–an endless stream of videos, pictures, updates, requests, posts, trackbacks, clickbacks, tweets, likes, links, and pings. It is impossible to simultaneously develop inner quiet and use iStuff. The cultivation of silence is a time-intensive habit that can’t be formed in the midst of a flood of data clamoring for attention.

iStuff also shapes us by encouraging immediate gratification. If we want a song, a book, a movie, a fact, we can have it as soon as our network can serve it up to us. Undoubtedly, this is a great convenience that makes many everyday tasks much easier. But such convenience also encourages us to cater to our desires. Since repeated actions lead to habits, iStuff, by its very nature, trains us in the habit of impulse. Nothing at the iTunes store or Amazon advocates self-control.

Running this out to its conclusion, iStuff encourages narcissism, which we are all inclined toward already.  iStuff trains us to see our wills as inexorable, requiring immediate obedience to every whim.

Undoubtedly, the moral fault and responsibility of this narcissism lies with the user: he is misusing a God-given tool. But iStuff also has no built-in check to prevent us from misusing it. In contrast, a misused hammer means a smashed thumb.

Mastering My Tools

Four weeks ago, I looked at my soul and found it far too noisy. This revelation reminded me of Screwtape’s love of noise:

“How thankful we should be that ever since Our Father entered Hell…no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces [music and silence], but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth.”

Knowing the sounds of my soul and the plans of Screwtape, I deleted 2/3 of the blogs from my reader, put my iPod in a drawer, trashed the shortcut icon to iTunes, and resolved to check my email only twice a day.

At first the silence was deafening, but slowly (as Schmemann promised) “what at first appeared as monotony now is revealed as peace; what sounded like sadness is now experienced as the very first movements of the soul recovering its lost depth.”